What Are Wicked Problems and How to Solve Them

At Zano, we have set our sights on tackling some of the world’s ‘wicked problems’. If you’re reading this, then you probably have an idea of what wicked problems are. But, in case you don’t or if you need a refresher, let’s start with that…

Defining Wicked Problems

First defined as a concept in the late-1960s & early-1970s, wicked problems are complex issues that avoid easy definitions and present unique challenges when trying to solve them. While the term ‘wicked’ may seem like a moral judgement upon the nature of these problems, it was also coined to highlight the difference between these open ended societal issues and the logical ‘tame problems’ in fields such as mathematics.

The work of Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber – who formally set out a definition of wicked problems in 1973 – describes ten characteristics for these problems. For us, the following are particularly relevant:

  • All wicked problems are essentially unique.
  • They do not have a ‘stopping rule’ – no obvious signal when they are solved.
  • The way a wicked problem is described determines its possible solutions.

The idea of tackling such large scale, open ended problems that are both mutable and subjective is a daunting one. It does not take much effort to imagine just the range of obstacles that problems of this nature present to those trying to solve them. Yet, the wicked problems we face today demand that they be solved.

So, how do we solve them?

As mentioned above, wicked problems are not technically issues that can be ‘solved’ in a traditional sense. The lack of a ‘stopping rule’ means that a final, definitive solution is by definition, highly difficult if not impossible to provide.

The unique, complex and nebulous nature of wicked problems means that, from the outset, we must strive to understand and listen. Approaching these problems from a top down view, looking to impose quick and easy solutions, simply does not work. Instead, a holistic, grassroots approach is essential. For us, this begins with listening. By taking the time to listen to stakeholders at all levels, we can fully understand and describe the problem, allowing us the most inclusive range of possible solutions.

The process of listening then naturally progresses into Co-Production. This combination of the principles of Co-Design and Co-Creation takes the information gathered through the listening process and asks stakeholders to work collaboratively, with both each other and us, to design and create potential solutions to the wicked problems they have identified and defined.

The final stage is prototyping. In other words, testing our collectively designed solutions in the real world. Small scale prototyping can give us an idea of the applied strengths & weaknesses of our solutions and how they can be scaled up for wider use if necessary.

This is a simple, but rigorous framework for approaching wicked problems that we have used extensively over our combined years of experience in social innovation. What is more, it is a cyclical approach. Once prototyping is completed, the listening phase can be returned to, taking into account the results of field testing. For us, the open ended nature of wicked problems requires a flexible and similarly open ended process to tackle.

So what comes next?

Next week we’ll be talking more about listening and some of the work we’ve done for ALC and the UNDP in this area. Make sure you don’t miss out by following up on Twitter and LinkedIn in the meantime!